This is the 15th and final Clips Nation "exit interview" of the 2012Los Angeles Clippers, an overview and analysis, player by player, of all 15 Clippers who finished the 2011-2012 season on the roster. In this edition, superstar point guard Chris Paul
Contract Status: Signed for next season at $17,779,458
In a Nutshell
In a nutshell? Chris Paul is pretty good. We knew that before he was a Clipper of course, we knew that when he was playing for the Hornets. But we also see now that he had a legitimate reason to want to get to a bigger market. Playing in Oklahoma City (in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) and New Orleans, two of the three smallest markets in the entire NBA, he didn't get nearly the national exposure that he deserves. The guy is simply incredible.
The Clippers went from "intriguing young team with an outside chance to challenge for a low playoff seed if a lot of things go right" to "playoff lock with a chance to challenge for an NBA title in the near future" the minute they acquired Paul in a blockbuster trade on December 14. The NBA is a superstar driven league, and contenders are built around MVP level players like Paul (he finished third in MVP voting this year and has finished as high as second in the past). Paul, joining the emerging Blake Griffin, made the Clippers instant contenders.
His first season in Los Angeles may not have been the best statistical season of his career (in 2008 and 2009 the guy was off the charts), but it was pretty close, and a major bounce back season after he had been slowed somewhat by injury in recent seasons. For his efforts he was justifiably rewarded with a First Team All NBA selection, the first Clipper ever so honored.
Consider that he was the only player in the NBA to average at least 19 points and 9 assists last season. Or that he's one of only two players to have done so in the past 15 years, since Kevin Johnson in 96-97, and that Paul has done it three times (Deron Williams has done it twice).
But it goes beyond his primary point guard duties of distributing and scoring. He rarely turns the ball over, despite handling it constantly (second in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio). He single-handedly took the Clippers from the bottom of the league in turnovers to the top. He is a tenacious defender with a nose for the ball (First Team All Defense and led the league in steals). And few point guards, indeed relatively few NBA players at any position, score at such a high level of efficiency *a true shooting percentage of .581). He's even a good rebounder for a guard, and he's only 6'0".
Still, it's more than just the numbers with Paul. He's one of the most driven and competitive individuals in a league absolutely brimming with competitors. A late game closeup of Paul in a losing effort shows a man completely miserable, ready to crawl out of his skin, desperate to change his situation, knowing he never wants to feel that way again. The guy hates to lose, and will do almost anything to avoid it.
One thing that is fascinating about Paul is that while he is spectacularly good, his game is rarely spectacular. Unlike his Clipper teammate Griffin, who routinely causes fans to gasp with his breathtaking athleticism but who still has much work to do on the fundamentals of the game, Paul manages to dominate the game without being physically or athletically dominant. Sure, he'll get a few oohs and aahs from his ballhandling from time to time, but for the most part he just plays the game better than anyone else.
His strengths are myriad, many of them listed above. There is really not much of anything on a basketball court that he does not do well. His handle is unparalleled in the league today as is his court vision. Because he does so many other things so well, he's not generally thought of as a pure shooter, but the truth is he's a terrific shooter. He does it all.
But what really sets him apart is his complete and total mastery of every aspect of the game, both the skills and the mental aspect. Paul is so smart, so far ahead of others in his awareness of what's happening, that several times this season he outfoxed the referees on the court who couldn't figure out what he was doing. Like the time he allowed a long defensive rebound to bounce several times before grabbing the ball, because there were about 26 seconds left in the quarter and he didn't want the shot clock to start on the new possession -- the timekeeper actually started the shot clock anyway, and Paul had to point out to the officials that it should not have. I mean, who does that? Who can be thinking that quickly, that many moves ahead? He's gotten himself into trouble in this way as well -- on more than one occasions, he's known that the other team was planning to intentionally foul one of his myriad poor shooting teammates and has tried to time a shot attempt to the point where the foul is committed. Once he made a half court shot at the whistle blew, which was waved off for some unknown reason. On a couple of other occasions, the referees decided to ignore the intentional foul, and Paul was left looking like a fool for taking a terrible shot. He's no fool -- he's just so much smarter than anyone else associated with the game that sometimes he is all alone out there.
Another thing that sets him apart is his ability to deliver in the most crucial situations. Paul was among the most productive scorers in the league in the fourth quarter this season, and easily the most productive in the final five minutes when you consider both points and assists. He thrives on the big moments and won several games for the Clippers this season in the final seconds.
Frankly, other than having the audacity of growing to a mere six feet tall, the guy doesn't have many weaknesses. His size can be a liability on defense against bigger guards or on defensive switches. And although he has uncanny hands and led the league in steals, he is not exactly a defensive stopper. He gambles a bit too much, and doesn't always do the best job of staying in front of super quick opposing points like Tony Parker. It seems strange to single out defense as a weakness for a player who was First Team All Defense, but All Defense voting has never been the most logical, and besides, that's how good the rest of Paul's game is.
He also can have a tendency to be too deferential early in games. Paul is a true point guard with a pass first mentality, one of only a handful left in the league. Given a choice between a good shot and a pass for a better shot, he'll choose the pass every time -- and sometimes he'll choose the pass even when the subsequent shot isn't going to be better. When you also happen to be your team's most efficient scorer, that unselfishness isn't always a good thing. Early in games in particular, the team was known to struggle from time to time, as Paul played the distributor and refused to look for his own offense. Part of that was also him pacing himself -- the lockout shortened season featured little rest between games and Paul was asked to play big minutes, so he liked to conserve his energy for the fourth quarter. But there's little question that this edition of the Clippers would have been a little better with Chris Paul averaging 22 instead of 19.8.
Future with the Clippers
This is the big question. Before the Clippers traded away some very valuable young players and assets, Paul agreed to opt into the final year of his existing contract, 2012-2013. That means that Paul has at least one more season in L.A. but he'll become a free agent after that and could move on, particularly if he believes that he'll have a better chance of winning elsewhere. Paul could technically sign an extension with the Clippers before becoming a free agent next summer, but there's little chance that he'll do that because frankly there's little incentive to do so. Unlike Griffin, who can make more money and guarantee his future salary fully two years sooner by signing an extension, Paul can keep his options open and still re-sign with the Clippers for the same money next summer (though he does incur a risk of sustaining an injury that could hurt his earning power during the season).
For those that dread a Carmelo in Denver, Dwight in Orlando or even CP3 in New Orleans scenario, it's important to note that the grumblings had long since started in each of those cities long before those players entered the final seasons of their contracts. That's why they became issues: everyone knew the player wanted out, and the team was in a position where they felt they had to do something or risk losing a superstar for nothing in return. That's not the case with Paul in L.A. Paul has had nothing but positive things to say about his experience in L.A. so far, and while he hasn't signed an extension (and again, there's little incentive for him to do so), nor has he given any indication that he wants out. As of now, Paul and the Clippers seem happy together.
The first season of the LACP3 era has to be considered a success. It may not have been an unmitigated success, and let's face it only a title would qualify by that standard, but a success nonetheless. Given the quality of the other teams in the Western Conference, a trip to the semi-finals, a season grouped with a couple teams behind the Thunder and the Spurs, seems about right. Don't forget that if this is all part of an audition of L.A. as the long term home of Chris Paul, the fact that Paul himself was injured, and missed some key shots in the final moments of their final game is a good sign. Paul can reasonably conclude that this team could have won even more if he himself had been healthier, had made another play or two. His competitive nature is likely to push him to want to prove more as a Clipper at this point.
But his L.A. future beyond the summer of 2013 all hinges at this point on next season. Year one was a success and didn't give Paul any reason to leave L.A. Will the same be true of year two? Do the Clippers have to take a step forward (say, the Western Conference Finals) or simply avoid taking a step back? Will any of the teams with cap space in 2013 (and there will be many) have a reasonable chance of being better with Paul than the Clippers? What other free agents will be on the market in 2013 that Paul might consider teaming up with? (The real question there being the status of Dwight Howard, who will no doubt be traded before then, but may or may not sign an extension as part of that trade.)
Don't forget that L.A. has been good to Chris Paul. He's charming and telegenic, and multiple appearances on Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel gave him more national exposure in a single season than he ever got in New Orleans. Even if the guy is trying to keep his options open, how many of those options will be better than the Clippers?
First things first, we'll have to wait and see how next season goes. This season was the most successful in franchise history -- with Paul around, I have a feeling next season will be as well.